Is there anything more beautiful than getting a glimpse of a Northern cardinal? These red-feathered birds have become one of the most desired visitors for a long. Why only Northern cardinals? Most birders always refer to Northern cardinals when they talk about cardinals.
So, what do cardinals eat? Cardinals, in general, eat seeds, insects, grains, greens, and fruits. These redbirds love sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and insects like flies, grasshoppers, spiders, and crickets. When in the wild, they consume wild grapes and various types of berries. Their diet can be diverse like other omnivorous birds.
This article is a supplement to our recent post on attracting cardinals to your yard. That page will let you know how to befriend them with the right food, feeders, water, nesting materials, and shelter. To learn more about cardinal look-alike birds, read our article on birds similar to cardinals.
Cardinal Diet and Food Sources
Cardinals are one of the omnivorous birds, but not quite. They collect most of their food from the environment. Do you know what they eat? We’re going to discuss cardinal diet and food sources in this section. So, let’s get started!
Cardinals love to eat seeds, foraging on the ground and under low-lying shrubs. They crack the shells with their strong beaks and then swallow the meat. They’re not picky about seeds as finches and house sparrows. That’s why they consume a wide variety of seeds in the wild.
The seeds they usually eat are:
- Sunflower Seeds (Especially Black Oil Sunflower Seeds)
- Safflower Seeds
- Squash Seeds
- Pumpkin Seeds without Husks
- Boxelder Maple Tree Seeds
- Muskmelon Seeds
- Ragweed Seeds, and 39 Others
Sunflower Seeds: Cardinals love sunflower seeds, particularly black oil sunflower seeds. Their thin shells are quite easy for cardinals to break. These songbirds can also eat hulled and heavier-shelled striped sunflower seeds due to their sturdy beaks.
When it comes to nutrients, black oil sunflower seeds include iron, potassium, fiber, protein, calcium, fat, vitamin E, and B vitamins. These seeds also contain high oil content that cardinals won’t get from hulled and striped sunflower seeds.
Safflower Seeds: Another seed that cardinals love to eat is thick-shelled safflower seeds, a close second option to these songbirds. The good news is house sparrows and squirrels don’t like these seeds. So, cardinals have low competition while having these seeds.
Cardinal Mix: If you’re willing to feed cardinals with seeds, “Cardinal Mix” could be the best option. What is the cardinal mix? This is mainly a combination of sunflower and safflower seeds, sometimes containing white proso millet, cracked corn, peanuts, and dry foods.
You can make the mix by yourself or purchase cardinal-friendly seed mixes from local avian stores or online. If you decide to buy a cardinal mix, make sure to focus on more expensive quality seeds mixed with cracked corn, peanuts, and dry foods for keeping cardinals healthy.
Considering the seed quality, we would like to suggest you buy Wagner’s Cardinal Blend from Amazon. The mix has worked exceptionally well so far. You can be assured to see a long list of positive reviews and ratings about the product on Amazon.
Lesser-Known Seeds: There are some lesser-known seeds out there that cardinals can eat. The list includes boxelder seeds, muskmelon seeds, ragweed seeds, Squash Seeds, Pumpkin Seeds without Husks, and many more.
Like many birds, cardinals adore nuts, especially peanuts. These delicious nuts have a high amount of fat and protein to keep these songbirds full-bellied for a long period. You can offer the following nuts to cardinals in your yard.
- Roasted Peanuts
- Crushed Peanuts
If you’re willing to provide cardinals with various nuts, you should offer unsalted nuts. Salted nuts usually have a high amount of sodium that can harm cardinals. Don’t give cardinals shelled peanuts because they love crushed ones.
When you’re going to offer nuts to cardinals, ensure that they’re not poisoned. For example, raw peanuts contain a trypsin inhibitor that can harm cardinals if they consume too many. There is an easy solution; try to provide cardinals with roasted peanuts instead of raw ones.
Cardinals love to forage a wide variety of insects. This way, they help farmers and DIY gardeners by eating harmful pests. Oftentimes, many insects travel to cardinals. That’s why these songbirds don’t need to waste time searching for them.
The insects cardinals usually eat are:
- Plant lice
- Flies, like Butterflies, Sawflies, Dragonflies
- Hoppers, like Leafhoppers, Treehoppers, Grasshoppers
There are a couple of cardinal species, scarlet tanager and indigo bunting, which primarily eat insects and bugs. The rose-breasted grosbeaks, another cardinal species, hunt moths, bees, ants, and sawflies during their breeding season.
Cardinals love mealworms as a fantastic source of protein. Parent cardinals search for live mealworms for their hatchlings in the spring. If you want to provide them with mealworms, always try to give them live mealworms, although dried mealworms can be an alternative.
You can grow mealworms for your backyard visitors by yourself or purchase from local pet stores or online. If you decide on buying online, we would like to suggest you have a look at the Kaytee Dried Mealworms on Amazon. You can mix the mealworms with a favorite seed.
Once you’ve collected dried mealworms for cardinals, soak them in water so that cardinals can easily swallow them. Don’t provide discolored mealworms because they may carry fatal salmonella, a serious disease for most birds.
Fruits are one of the most consumed items in cardinals’ diet chart. They’re rich in energy, high water, and necessary sugar. Cardinals never mind fruits whether they’re fresh, dried, or mixed with other fruits, seeds, or nuts.
The fruits cardinals usually eat are:
If you want to provide cardinals with fruits, you should put out the slices of the above-mentioned fruits in your backyard every day if possible. You can easily buy various fruits at your nearby grocery stores. Keep in mind that these songbirds prefer apple slices.
Cardinals are quite fond of wild berries, such as serviceberries, mulberries, elderberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and more from wild trees, shrubs, and bushes. They even eat fruits poison ivy plants, which are poisonous to humans.
Cardinals love suet, a high-calorie fat from cattle or sheep. It replaces insects and nuts in harsh winter weather. Basically, cardinals like suet shreds and cakes over suet blocks. This might be because cardinals cannot comfortably perch on many suet feeders.
You can buy suet from local butcher shops or make a batch by yourself at home. Store-bought suet can be the best option. It contains sunflower seeds, peanuts, peanut butter, and other useful ingredients. Have a look at it on Amazon (click here).
Adult cardinals of many species consume greens, such as grasses, chopped greens, tree buds, and various leafy greens like salad. Although greens have a lot of nutrients, these songbirds eat a few greens on a daily basis.
Like other birds, cardinals enjoy drinking fresh water throughout the year. In winter when lakes and rivers get frozen, you should provide them unfrozen water. If you have a pet cardinal, offering fresh water all the time is really essential.
#10. Additional Diet
Since cardinals are omnivorous birds, they have a few different diets. Sometimes, cardinals love human foods. During winter months when regular foods are not available, they are prone to eat many odd foods found in the environment.
- Bread Crumbs
- Grains, like Oats, Wheat
- White Milo
- Cracked Corn
- Maple sap
Cracked corn, oats, and white milo provide cardinals with essential fiber and protein. And maple sap contains vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which are beneficial for cardinals. Remember, cardinals don’t eat dairy foods, like cheese, although it contains fat like suet.
What Cardinals Eat Depending on Seasons
Like many other birds, cardinals need to change their diet depending on seasons and the availability of foods. Let’s see how cardinals eat various foods in different seasons (according to the seasons of North America).
#In the Spring
Cardinals, in the spring, eat flower blossoms from elm trees. They also love to consume live mealworms in this season. As spring is the breeding season of cardinals, parents need to forage for mealworms for their hatchlings.
#In Late Spring and Summer
Cardinals, particularly Northern cardinals eat various insects, including spiders, termites, beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, and more in the late spring and summer. They also consume some arthropods in this season to gain extra energy.
#In the Fall
In the fall, cardinals love to eat nuts, crushed seeds, sunflower hearts, white milo, cracked corn, and various fruits and berries. Through having these treats, cardinals accumulate energy for the upcoming colder winter months.
#In the Winter
Cardinals, in winter, primarily eat grass seeds, weed seeds, tree nuts, waste grains, such as corn, oats, and rice. These red-feathered birds also consume small chunks of suet. Not only are these foods rich in calories, but they also help cardinals handle the harsh cold.
Besides, almost all the lakes, ponds, and rivers get frozen during winter. Consequently, cardinals don’t get enough water to drink and bathe. To keep the water unfrozen for cardinals, you can buy and set a birdbath with a heater (the links take you to Amazon).
What Do Cardinals Eat in the Wild? (Cardinal Diet in Nature)
Cardinals, in the wild, eat 30% of insects and 70% of other foods, like seeds, nuts, fruits, berries, suet, and more. When it comes to eating insects, cardinals prefer grasshoppers, caterpillars, snails, cicadas, beetles, and other small insects and bugs.
On the other hand, cardinals feast on many other foods, such as grains, elm tree bark and blossoms, and maple sap. They drink water from lakes, ponds, and rivers in spring, summer, and fall to keep themselves hydrated all the time.
What Do Cardinals Eat at Feeders? (A List of Cardinal-Friendly Feeders)
Cardinals usually eat sunflower seeds, sunflower chips and hearts, safflower seeds, squash seeds, peanuts, and various fruits from bird feeders offered by enthusiast birders. They come back to the feeder they usually eat from every day.
Let’s have a look at some cardinal-friendly feeders below:
#1. Tube Feeders
In tube feeders, you can offer cardinals sunflower seeds. You shouldn’t fill your tube feeders with sunflower chips and hearts, corn, and peanuts because these feeders can easily accumulate moisture. So, the treats could be ruined quickly.
If your tube feeders have metallic feeding ports, they can be squirrel-proof. Considering this fact, we suggest you buy the Droll Yankees Seed Bird Feeder from Amazon. Its metallic feeding ports discourage squirrels from eating seeds and chewing perches.
#2. Tray/ Platform Feeders
In tray feeders, you can offer sunflower and safflower seeds to your red-feathered friends. Unlike tube feeders, you can fill the tray feeders with sunflower chips and hearts, peanuts, and corn. Keep in mind that you offer corn in a reasonable quantity.
If you don’t have a tray/platform feeder and decide to purchase one, we recommend you take a look at Nature’s Way Hanging Platform Feeder on Amazon. The feeder has a screen bottom to drain rainwater through and keep the seeds dry.
#3. Hopper Feeders
In hopper feeders, you can put sunflower and safflower seeds for cardinals, although these feeders are not highly recommended for safflowers. The bad thing about hopper feeders is there could be fungus and bacteria if the seeds get wet.
In comparison to tray feeders, hopper feeders are difficult to clean. If you are looking for an easy-to-clean hopper feeder, we would like to suggest you choose the Nature’s Way Hopper Bird Feeder on Amazon. The seed tray is removable, and the opening is wide enough.
#4. Squirrel-Proof Feeders
There are different types of squirrel-proof feeders out there in today’s market. For example, you can buy hopper squirrel-proof feeders, tube squirrel-proof feeders, etc. In almost all squirrel-proof feeders, you can add sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and a seed mix.
Are there many squirrels around your house? Do you need a squirrel-proof bird feeder? The Droll Yankees Squirrel-Proof Bird Feeder (on Amazon) could be what you’re actually looking for. It can discourage squirrels from perching on it and eating cardinals’ treats.
#5. Window Feeders
In window feeders, you can put sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, peanuts, and various chopped fruits. You can also add mealworms, but we recommend putting dried mealworms. As additional treats, you can fill the feeders with white proso millet, corn, oats, and rice.
Window bird feeders are excellent choices for enthusiast bird-watchers. If you are one of them but don’t have such a feeder, we suggest you choose the DF OMER Weatherproof Window Bird Feeder from Amazon. The feeder has obtained excellent reviews from the customers.
#6. Suet Feeders
In suet feeders, you can add suet cakes for cardinals, especially for winter when regular food sources are not readily available. However, you cannot put suet shreds in suet feeders because these feeders usually have large square holes to eat from.
To feed cardinals in winter, you will need a suet feeder. But, which suet feeder will be good for you and your cardinals? In our opinion, you should purchase the Nature’s Way Hopper Bird Feeder with Suet on Amazon. You can use it as a hopper feeder and a suet feeder at once.
What Do Baby Cardinals Eat? (Survival Secret of Red Birds)
Baby cardinals actually eat what their parents feed them. When baby cardinals are too young, they eat consumed and then regurgitated insects from the parents. As they grow older, they get an offer to eat whole insects from their fathers and mothers.
Why do parent cardinals feed their babies insects? To build up the strength of their nestlings and fledglings, parent cardinals feed them insects rich in fat and protein. They feed their hatchlings a minimum of 3 to a maximum of 8 times every hour.
The high-protein insects baby cardinals eat are: Wasps, bees, and ants contain 770 grams of protein per 1 kilogram, while true bugs, also known as water bugs have 740 grams of protein per 1 kilogram. From crickets, dragonflies, and beetles, cardinals get 650 grams of protein per 1 kilogram.
Let’s see the data in a simple chart:
|Name of Insects||Amount of Protein (Per 1kg)|
What Can You Feed Cardinals? (And What You Can’t)
If you’re willing to feed cardinals, you can offer them their regular foods, like seeds, nuts, insects, fruits, etc. Make sure to feed them once every half an hour. We suggest you feed baby cardinals dog, cat, or parrot foods, crushed peanuts, and chopped greens.
When dealing with orphaned cardinals, you can feed them a dry cat or dog food. Before serving the dish, soak ¾ of the food in water with ¼ of soft fruits, such as apples, raisins, berries, etc. If the chicks are quite small, blend the foods. Otherwise, larger nestlings can eat solid ones.
Now, the question is, what foods should you not offer baby cardinals? Experts say that feeding baby cardinals lactose-rich dairy products can be quite harmful to their stomachs. To make baby cardinals healthy, you need to avoid any milky food items.
What Can You Offer Injured Cardinals?
If you found an injured cardinal, you can feed it anything it can eat when it’s all right. For example, if you feed the cardinal a variety of insects, such as flies, beetles, moths, etc., it will get a high amount of protein, which helps it to recover quickly.
There is a special treat for injured cardinals: canned cat food like tuna and salmon. When you notice the injured cardinal fallen on the ground, leave a little amount of wet cat food near it so that it can consume.
Feeding and Foraging Behavior of Cardinals
Northern Cardinals usually feed on the ground, swooping down to catch various insects. They also eat fast-flying insects by catching them in the air. Not only that, but cardinals readily come to bird feeders with perches to eat delicious treats.
These red-feathered birds sit on the feeder perches and chew their food. They crack the seed with their strong beaks. Once they have manipulated the seed, they use their tongue to remove the seed. Then, they swallow the seed kernel.
Due to the ground-feeding behavior, cardinals feed on spilled seeds under your feeders. They also forage from low shrubs and bushes. If you really want to feed cardinals, you should scatter some sunflower and safflower seeds under your feeders.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
1. Why do male cardinals feed female cardinals?
Once female cardinals lay eggs, she needs to incubate her eggs for 11 to 13 days. During this period, the females cannot leave the nest for searching for their food. Meanwhile, the male cardinals feed their females so that they don’t have to leave the nest while incubating the eggs.
2. What is the cardinals’ most favorite food?
A variety of foods are out there that cardinals love to eat. However, their favorite food is sunflower seeds and various insects. In winter when everything remains covered with ice and snow, their favorite food is fruits and berries.
3. How much do cardinals eat every day?
Typically, young cardinals can eat more food than adults. However, a general rule of thumb is cardinals consume foods nearly ½ to ¼ of their body weight per day, depending on the age. Many adult cardinals can also take foods around ½ – 1 pound of their body weight every day.
4. What are the differences in diet between northern and southern cardinals?
Both northern and southern cardinals eat all common foods. However, northern cardinals eat corn, oats, grapes, sumac, sedge, and vervain flower, while southern cardinals eat wild cherries, blackberries, ragweed, and plantains.
5. How to feed cardinals?
If you’re willing to feed cardinals, you can follow some essential advice from us:
- Put out cardinal-friendly feeders full of their favorite large seeds.
- Choose a feeder that provides a large tray to perch on for feeding.
- Create a feeding area for fruits and bread.
- Clean the feeder regularly to prevent ant infestations.
- Change the rotten foods with new ones.
Now that you know what cardinals actually eat in the wild, you can offer these red-feathered friends their favorite foods in feeders. Keep your pet cats and dogs away from cardinals as cats have a long history to kill many birds.
However, we think we have tried our best to let you know what cardinals eat in the wild and from enthusiast birders throughout the year. If you have any experience in feeding cardinals in your backyard, you can share it with us.
- Related Blogs:
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- Do Cardinals Use Birdhouses? [Read here]
- How To Attract Crows? [Read here]
- How To Attract Cardinals? [Read here]
- What Do Woodpeckers Eat? [Read here]
- How To Attract Woodpeckers? [Read here]
- How To Get Rid Of Crows? [Read here]
- How To Attract Finches? [Read here]